Murder in Kandahar: What does the killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai mean?

I don’t know any more than you do about the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the well-connected and notoriously corrupt half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was also de facto governor of Kandahar province and reportedly on the CIA payroll. In fact, I probably know less than some of you. But I’ll offer a ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

I don't know any more than you do about the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the well-connected and notoriously corrupt half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was also de facto governor of Kandahar province and reportedly on the CIA payroll. In fact, I probably know less than some of you. But I'll offer a few quick reactions to the news nonetheless.

First, unless the killing was some sort of personal vendetta, it seems likely that it was politically motivated and it strikes me as plausible that it was ordered by the Taliban. The killer, a family associate named Sardar Mohammed, was a regular visitor to Karzai's home, and he must have known that shooting Karzai in his own compound was a suicide mission. 

Second, in the short run this has to be a propaganda boost for the Taliban, who have already claimed credit for the killing and called it one of the "great achievements" of the war.  From the very beginning, the Taliban's main appeal was their ability to provide order (albeit of a very brutal sort) and their lack of personal corruption. Wali Karzai, needless to say, was a vivid symbol of the latter. More importantly, the Taliban will undoubtedly use the killing to cast doubt on the Afghan government's ability to protect even top officials. In a war of perceptions, this is not good news for our side.

I don’t know any more than you do about the assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the well-connected and notoriously corrupt half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was also de facto governor of Kandahar province and reportedly on the CIA payroll. In fact, I probably know less than some of you. But I’ll offer a few quick reactions to the news nonetheless.

First, unless the killing was some sort of personal vendetta, it seems likely that it was politically motivated and it strikes me as plausible that it was ordered by the Taliban. The killer, a family associate named Sardar Mohammed, was a regular visitor to Karzai’s home, and he must have known that shooting Karzai in his own compound was a suicide mission. 

Second, in the short run this has to be a propaganda boost for the Taliban, who have already claimed credit for the killing and called it one of the "great achievements" of the war.  From the very beginning, the Taliban’s main appeal was their ability to provide order (albeit of a very brutal sort) and their lack of personal corruption. Wali Karzai, needless to say, was a vivid symbol of the latter. More importantly, the Taliban will undoubtedly use the killing to cast doubt on the Afghan government’s ability to protect even top officials. In a war of perceptions, this is not good news for our side.

Third, to me it merely underscores the continued futility of trying to win a counter-insurgency war in a country where we lack a competent, committed, or fully-legitimate local partner. We’re likely to get a lot of upbeat reports of progress in the months to come, as the Obama administration tries to persuade us that the "surge" worked and that we can start going home. I hope this sleight of hand works, because the war is a running sore and a distraction from more important problems. But spin and PR won’t change the basic reality: Afghanistan’s fate will be determined by the Afghans and not by us.  

Heck, our own political system can’t even get a budget deal done without a lot of eleventh-hour hysterics, and yet we think we can reliably reshape the political order of a country of 32 million Muslims, many of them illiterate, and divided into at least five major tribes.  Can you say "hubris?" 

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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